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Wright-ing the ship New coach has Panthers winning again

Three months ago, Ayer Shirley Athletic Director Steve Kendall didn’t know if the school would continue to field a football team. But after a month of gridiron gauntlets, Kendall and the Panthers are quite pleased, winning more games in three weeks than in the previous two seasons combined. Ayer Shirley followed up a one-win campaign in 2019 with a winless trek through a pandemic-shortened spring season in 2021, concluding with a cancellation of the season finale due to a lack of able bodies. “In hindsight, maybe it would have been better if we didn’t play at all,” said Kendall, who is entering his fourth year running the show. “But the kids worked hard and got better. Now they’re another year older and stronger.” The Panthers’ woes continued in the offseason when coach Jermaine McKenzie made a midsummer leap to Dracut High School, leaving the team without a skipper as the season approached. “If you asked me in late July or early August whether we would have a team, I’d probably have given it a 50/50 chance of happening,” Kendall said. Kendall turned to the school's baseball coach and former Shirley police officer, Bill Wright. Wright previously assisted the Panthers' staff, serving from 2001-2015, and even taking over the program for a brief stint in 2013. He was the head coach for Murdock High last spring. “I had seen in baseball what a good job he had done with our program,” Kendall said. “But with just three weeks to go before the season, it certainly took a little convincing. That’s not an easy task for anyone, but a lot of the kids already knew him and respected him. So that has made it easier.” “I didn’t get the job until the third week in August, so it wasn’t the ideal start,” Wright laughed. “Our goal has just been to keep all the kids in the program and improve each week.” Wright has installed a spread-option attack, trusting the offense to second-year signal caller Brian Holmes. Holmes, a 5-foot-7, 155-pound junior, completed 13 of 19 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-12 win over Worcester North this past week. He also ran for two scores and led a stout Panther defense as the team's leading tackler. “He’s a terrific athlete who brings great leadership to our team - just a gritty kid who plays hard every down,” Wright said. Junior tailback Cam Marshall powered his way past the Polar Bear defense for 270 total yards (180 rushing, 90 receiving) and three touchdowns. Classmate Ryan Marchand also caught a touchdown pass. The defensive efforts were highlighted by the strong play of juniors Jaleb McGlinchey (fumble recovery) and John Lannaconey. Their efforts helped Ayer Shirley bounce back from a 27-8 defeat at hands of Worcester Tech on Sept. 17. The Panthers downed Sutton in the season opener, 22-14. “It’s a progression,” the coach said of a 32-man roster featuring eight returning starters. “We’re just looking to get better on a game-to-game basis. If we do that, win or lose, I can accept that.” Ayer Shirley (2-1) will face Gardner (1-2) at Lunenburg High School Friday evening at 7. “They’re notorious for having tough kids,” said Wright, who spent three years patrolling the Wildcats sideline. The Panthers will receive a boost from the return of the high school band - its first in-game performance since pandemic restrictions indefinitely sidelined their talents. “The crowds we’ve had have been good,” Ayers A.D. Kendall said. “I think people are just excited to see Friday night lights come back.” Winning also helps. “Billy has done a great job,” Kendall added. “The staff he’s brought is filled with great coaches, but even better people. Win or lose, the kids are leaving the field smiling. And that’s the most important thing for us.”